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Phil Ramone, A Record Producer Who Made Simplicity Sound Sublime, Dies

Phil Ramone in the studio in the 1980s.
Ebet Roberts
Phil Ramone in the studio in the 1980s.

In the course of his five-decade career, Phil Ramone helped create enduring masterworks by Bob Dylan, Stan Getz and Paul Simon. He produced big-hit records for Billy Joel, Chicago, Kenny Loggins, Barbra Streisand and top-shelf stars from every corner of the music world, while cultivating a reputation as a sound guru and difficult-talent whisperer. Along the way, the producer and engineer — who died Saturday at the age of 79 — amassed a formidable mountain of awards, including an album of the year Grammys for Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years, Joel's 52nd Street and Ray Charles' duets album, Genius Loves Company.

For all of these accomplishments, there is one thing Ramone never had: His own "sound."

Cue up selections from a bunch of Ramone's productions, and what you discover, listening back to back, is an astonishing openness — and little else that might be considered a unifying "trait." The sounds are arrayed logically, with loving care. Everything is where the ear expects it. And the production itself is nearly transparent, perfectly tailored to the spirit of the music. Ramone's mixes are notable for their simplicity: Unlike the rock-era producers who leave pools of reverb and other fingerprinted "trademarks" on the final product, Ramone attempted to make his technical considerations and sound-shaping effects invisible. He trained the spotlight on the singer, or the musicians and he left it there; in his work, there's little of the gimmickry and blinging artifice that often creeps into studio projects. And, for that matter, very little contrivance of any kind: No matter the style, he rendered the details of the music as faithfully as possible, even when the music itself was gaudy and excessive.

A gregarious soul comfortable with jazz titans and punks, Ramone had the temperament to keep expensive and elaborate projects on track — even during the heyday of big-budget recording in the late '70s. Ramone believed in the direct circuit between artistic inspiration and the listener and worked to free those pathways of clutter. He believed a primary role of studio people, producers and engineers, was to create the conditions under which artists could make magic happen. In a 2005 interview with the British audio journal Sound on Sound, he explained that, in his estimation, part of the job fell under the heading of "basic preparation," and part involved psychology, or cheerleading.

"Convincing people that they are really good and getting them to play at a new level, that's what I look for. And understanding what the assignment is because that's forgotten for most of the time. People can perform and play well, but the actual intent in what they're trying to do in the music can be lost. Trying to get everybody on the same page is what being a good producer is about," he said.

Certainly part of Ramone's gift derived from the fact that he was a musician himself. Born in South Africa, he began playing violin at age 3 and was considered a prodigy at 10, when he performed for Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. He took on a huge workload as a teenager, combining his high school coursework with advanced training at New York's Juilliard School of Music, only gravitating to the technical side of the business after working as an assistant in several studios. (Among other early career odd jobs, he served as musical director for President John F. Kennedy's 1962 birthday party, the one famous for Marilyn Monroe's serenade.)

Ramone's training informed his work as an engineer and producer: Because he understood the rudiments of music, he was able to communicate effectively with everyone involved in a session. He was particularly adept at making singers want to climb into a wood-paneled booth and sing — no small task given the unnatural environment of the studio. Whether the supporting instrumentation came from jazz trio or a full studio orchestra, he framed the vocal in ways that enhanced its resonance. He gave barroom shouters a veneer of subtlety, and conversely made whispery singers sound devastatingly powerful. Often he accomplished this with simple touches, using delicate sounds (a bell tree, an acoustic guitar, whispers from a cymbal) to foster audio intimacy, a calm and confiding aura. His attention to detail seemed to inspire singers: Running through Ramone's discography are open, relaxed vocal performances, often captured live in the studio, that are notable for their emotional honesty.

In his 2007 memoir, Making Records, Ramone recalled one such session, the first day of work with Bob Dylan for Blood on the Tracks. "It was clear that this album was going to be personal. Bob was going through a separation; he was emotionally fragile and at a creative crossroads," Ramone wrote. "The sessions were unscripted and unpretentious. I saw them as a spiritual release — a letting out of the man's insides."

Ramone went into recording sessions knowing he could make his artists sound good after the final take was in the can; his genius lay partly with his ability to make them sound good in the room, while tape was rolling. Though he was by no means a musical radical, Ramone was capable of pushing his artists outside of familiar territory: In 1980, a time when music was overrun with shimmering strings (a disco legacy) and buzzy analog synthesizers (new wave), Ramone convinced Billy Joel to approach one of his new tunes, "You May be Right," the way The Rolling Stones might have in 1966, with terse and repetitive rhythm section parts. The result: one of Joel's most forthright, believable singles.

Pop records of the 1970s and after feature lots of working parts and instruments moving in tight synchronization — some recorded live, but more layered atop each other after the fact, via overdubs. Ramone essentialized this tangle of information while sessions were in progress, streamlining it without sacrificing richness; his detailed mixes guide the listener's ear to the most important elements of the music.

In this way, he belongs to a cadre of "old school" producers — like Tommy LiPuma and to a lesser extent Rudy Van Gelder — who drew on a technical understanding of recording in their production work and sought musical answers to studio challenges. Their wheelhouse might have been the nuts-and-bolts of getting sounds and capturing drama onto tape; as they evolved, each became comfortable sliding from the handling of technical aspects to the larger "vision" role. Ramone made it his business to understand a performer's intentions; from there, he'd gather the proper elements — combinations of instruments, players and studio effects — to help realize that intention.

Indeed, by the mid '70s, after he'd done Simon's Still Crazy, Ramone evolved a method of working that is difficult to accurately render in the confines of the typical album credit — an on-the-fly combination of basic audio engineering, musical direction (attending to the details of the arrangement the way musical directors did in earlier eras) and the more traditional producer's role of crafting the tone and overall "feel" of a project.

Though he came up in the era of live-in-the-studio recording, Ramone was fluent in the latest developments in computer-aided digital production and was unafraid to try new things. He was the first to use a fiber-optic system to connect artists in different locations so they could record "together" in real time, on the Frank Sinatra Duets albums (1993-4). Crucially, Ramone never relied on technology to cover for talent. He avoided fads and erred on the side of understatement (one reason so many middle-of-the-road interpretive singers flourished when he was in the control room).

He learned about understatement early on, with a project that landed at his first studio, A&R Recording, in 1963: The collaboration between saxophonist Stan Getz and rising members of the Brazilian bossa nova scene that was recorded in two days and released as Getz/Gilberto. Nearly every track featured a different singer and a slightly different ensemble; Ramone captured each detail brilliantly, and created a warm and intimate sound that was invitingly airy and at the same time strikingly sensual. The album's single, "The Girl From Ipanema," kick-started the bossa nova craze in the U.S. and the album became one of the top-selling jazz records of all time. It brought Ramone the first of his 14 Grammy awards — for best engineered recording — in 1964.

The warmth of the album was not an accident: Ramone stragetically positioned the acoustic guitar, drums and the other instruments in the room to suggest an airy openness. Hearing a rehearsal take, he became particularly interested in capturing every breath and utterance from singer Joao Gilberto — after some trial and error, he conjured a pillow-talking intimacy that other engineers emulated on countless subsequent recordings by Gilberto. In attending to those details at that session, he helped create a distinctive "aura" for a singer that has carried on ever since.

In his memoir, Ramone uses the same language to describe what he did on many different projects. He talks about doing his best to understand what the artist was going for and seeking ways to coax that out. As example and operating philosophy, his notion of serving the music may wind up being of more lasting consequence than any one sonic signature: Ramone engaged each musical assignment on its own terms and sought out what was best for it.

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.
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